Back in 1986, James Cameron, fresh off of his success with The Terminator was offered the opportunity to helm the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. In accepting the job, he decided to take the franchise down a different path, and explore something that had been on his mind. Like many Americans of Cameron’s age, the Vietnam War had been his generation’s defining event. In Cameron’s mind, the issue had not been American politics as much as: how could the most advanced and best trained military to ever walk the Earth be defeated by a nation which for all intents and purposes had barely left the copper age? Thus in Aliens, you see a unit of highly trained marines, armed with every advanced weapon you could ask, mowed down by some very determined and scary beasts. His marines were as assured of themselves as he envisioned their American counterparts were stepping off troop transports in Vietnam. The result was about the same. The beasts were slaughtered, and the military was forced into retreat.
In Avatar, Cameron revisits this theme: a highly advanced technological military-industrial society taking on an extremely primitive tribe. But there are some twists. Cameron’s plans for this film date back to just before the disaster that was Titanic, however it sat on a shelf while he patiently waited for the technology to arrive. When he saw Peter Jackson’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, the character of Gollum convinced him that the technology was close enough to begin planning the film.
The year is 2148, and man has reached Alpha Centauri where one of the moons orbiting a gas giant is named Pandora. Pandora is a biologists dream: lush jungle and water everywhere … not to mention creatures of every type imaginable. the low gravity allows things to grow BIG. The atmosphere is not breathable by humans for but short periods of time, but they do fine with oxygen masks. The planet is also rich in an extremely valuable mineral humorously called unobtanium ($20 million per kilo!)
The problem is with the native humanoid species, the Na’vi … they are very cagey to deal with. Humans tried setting up schools and offering them technological advancement … the school was eventually shut down, and the human presence is limited to a large base of operations which can be defended.
In an attempt to solve the problem, the company in charge of raping the planet has brought in a scientist (Sigourney Weaver) who has created Na’vi-human clones (avatars) which can accept link with a human controller’s brain. The company thinks that the Na’vi will be more willing to give up and go find other trees to live in if they hear it from someone who looks like them. The scientists figure that they can better learn about the planet and its inhabitants this way.
This is all thrown into chaos when one of the scientists trained to control an avatar is killed on Earth in a robbery. The avatars are very expensive to construct, and work only when there is a genetic match between the avatar and the controller. Fortunately, the dead scientist has a twin brother (Jake), a marine who has recently been turned into a paraplegic, and is in desperate need of money to get the operation that will restore his ability to walk. He decides to replace his brother in the project, much to the chagrin of the scientists who don’t like the marines on the base, and don’t want one inhabiting their expensive observation tool.
Eventually, Jake, in the form of his avatar, makes contact with the Na’vi, and begins to learn about their society. He is also secretly reporting back to the colonel in charge of the military detachment at the base, as the colonel has promised him his legs back upon return to Earth, and secretly believes that military conflict is inevitable, and wants intelligence on his opponents.
Without giving away too much, it is only a matter of time before Jake realizes that this primitive society is extraordinarily sophisticated, and lives in great harmony with their extraordinary world, and as the time approaches for the Na’vi to be evicted so that mining may begin, he must choose serving the human race or the Na’vi. What follows are some incredible to behold battle scenes.
First off, the film is show in 3-D. I have not seen a 3-D film since I saw the IMAX film Space Station in Boston. The 3-D in this film is truly extraordinary! I have read how Roger Ebert, a strong opponent of using 3-D in films, was blown away by its use here. I agree completely … this is a whole new technology that gives, at certain parts of the film, a real three dimension effect. Since I am guessing that this will not be available with home video, this is absolutely a film that must be experienced in a theater. There are a few early scenes where the scene was set up to “show off” the 3-D, but after that, it becomes a part of the film, and you simply accept it.
Second … the creature creation of the flora and fauna of Pandora is remarkable! It is obviously imaginative, but unlike so many other attempts at creating alien life, you can tell that there was an actual attempt to model these life-forms on real biological life-forms. Thanks to the CGI, they look real …. thanks to some great research, they actually ACT real. A discussion of the biology and ecosystem of the planet would be an involved discussion, and really is something that needs to be seen. To say that any awards in visual effects is now a non-issue is an understatement. James Cameron was in no way boasting idly about this film completely altering the technology of film.
One of the questions I had going into this film is: why would James Cameron spend a huge sum of money to essentially remake Dances With Wolves (you would have to be near brain death to not see the intimate connection between that film and this one)?
My answer: Dances With Wolves is an extraordinary film, but is tied to one time period, and one conflict: the conflict of Native Americans fighting to defend their lands against a nineteenth century United States that was ignorant of what they were doing …. sure they knew they were taking land, but I am still unconvinced that they were fully cognizant of the fact that Native Americans were equally human or civilized or some such excuse. Thus people today can look at that film and say “if they knew then what we know now, that would never have happened” … that maybe a naive point of view, but it is easy to get drawn into thinking that because that conflict occurred a long time ago by people that would bear little resemblance to Americans of today.
Undoubtedly, narrow minded political pundits will say “Avatar is a metaphor for what is happening in the Middle East” or “Avatar is a metaphor for Tibet” … doing so is extremely narrow minded! Keep in mind, the Na’vi leads were voiced by Wes Studi (Native American), CCH Pounder, and Zoe Saldana (African Americans). This draws the direct parallel to American expansion in the West and European colonialization in Africa, but even that is a narrow minded approach. If that were the case, I am convinced that Cameron would have used his expansive technology and film making skills to walk the road that he did in Titanic, and made a historic film set in (fill in the blank) (colonial era Africa, the Middle East, Tibet, the Old West, Mexico, Colonial-era America, etc, etc. In setting the film in a fantastic future, he poses the more serious questions: Does this scenario look familiar? (it should) Has this happened before? (yes) Even after a good century of 20-20 hindsight, do we have to be careful to make sure this doesn’t happen again? (the answer is most definitely). Is this happening now ….. that is a more complicated question, but in seeing this film, I think it forces a more critical assessment of the world as it is, and the world as it soon will be.
Whether you think this way or not about the current situation in Iraq, it is a film that raises an obvious and troubling question. This film is very worthy to enter the pantheon of great science fiction cinema.
James Cameron has redeemed himself!